Some ancient basketball wisdom: “You can’t coach height.” No coach in the world could have coached Shaquille O’Neal, for instance, to be 7 feet 1 inch.
It applies to movie stars too – especially in movies like “Non-Stop,” opening tonight. No one could have taught Liam Neeson to be 6 feet 4 inches. Robert Mitchum, it’s true, in his more raffish cocktail-fueled moments used to swear that the already big John Wayne always wore large-heeled cowboy boots so that he could always be the tallest man in any room he was in.
But no director or costumer in movies or, for that matter, gym trainer could have made Neeson’s broad shoulders as wide as a Mack truck either. That gym trainer can help keep Neeson the genuinely massive human being that he is but, let’s face it, it’s biology that, more than anything, made him an action movie star.
I can, if anyone wants testimony in open court, testify that Neeson is just about anyone’s idea of a very big man – a man born to be in movies where he can fight off four brawling attackers and snap another man’s neck like a twig. If Tobey Maguire or Robert Downey Jr. did that in a movie, you’d need sci-fi or supernatural hoo-ha to get it past the audience’s unanimous feeling of “huh?” When Neeson does it in “Non-Stop,” you’re ready to believe it.
I interviewed Neeson in a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival a couple of decades ago. He was in a Miramax movie called “The Big Man” playing a struggling Irish family man forced into bone-battering bare-knuckle brawling to pay the family bills.
Neeson was somewhat notorious back then for showing up for interviewers in various stages of “accidental” undress. Sure enough, he met me at the door of his hotel room with hair still wet from a shower and wearing nothing but a towel. (Trust me, I wasn’t early.) I can, therefore, testify with impunity in open court that he is indeed one big guy.
He had to get “Schindler’s List” out of the way to prove he’s a serious actor, too. And he was superb in Spielberg’s film – especially in those scenes with Ben Kingsley. But the money in such roles is less than secure. His size won out. (He started off as an actor playing Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.” No one would have asked him to play George.) He eventually accepted his God-given ability to be the biggest guy in the room and spend a lot of onscreen time throwing bad guys around like rag dolls and threatening to be the instrument of Jehovah’s own vengeance (Somewhere, somehow, someone will figure out how to put Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson in a movie together. As antagonists, they’d be a sort of King Kong vs. Godzilla.)
His new movie “Non-Stop” is a preposterously entertaining action thriller about an air marshal on a trans-Atlantic flight to London who is texted, right from the flight’s beginning, by a crazy killer on board the plane who says that one person on the flight will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to account number blah-blah-blah.
By the time the marshal figures out that he is, himself, the instrument of some of those deaths and that he’s been set up to look like an airplane hijacker, it would be too late for anyone but a defender of righteousness and innocence as stolid as Neeson.
Julianne Moore is the beautiful and mature redhead in the window seat next to him whom he enlists in his struggle because she was sound asleep during the first round of intense cat-and-mouse texts. He’s sure, therefore, she wasn’t on the business end of all those threats and ripostes.
A bunch of writers was involved with this baby producing an absurd script for the kind of director who couldn’t give a fig about script quality as long as he can keep the perils coming and his Irish Godzilla star can get in his licks in pretty good action scenes.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson have worked together before in “Unknown.”
Just how bad is this script, you might ask.
We are, early on, encouraged to think there’s something mysteriously fascinating about what seat-mate Moore does for a living. She’s very coy about not telling him. Is she an international call girl at fancy conferences? Smuggler? Hitwoman for the mob? CIA agent? Some of us spend the movie wondering. The question is raised. And, at film’s end is left unanswered, a very basic movie no-no.
So you’re asked to believe everything all these bad writers could come up with to keep the body count climbing, the mystery progressing and, at film’s end, introduce a bomb just to up the ante.
How, you may well ask about this film, did an alcoholic, depressed, washout from the New York police force – and a white knuckle flier to boot – get to be in the Transportation Security Administration as an air marshal?
“Calm down, I can explain this” the air marshal keeps telling people. “No you can’t,” I keep wanting to answer from my seat. Not with writers that bad you can’t.
At the end, he’s forced to admit, “I’m not a good father. I’m not a good man.”
Let me admit on his behalf, his movie is not a good movie. But watch it at home on your DVR from cable or on a DVD, you’ll have a grand time pausing and cherishing every preposterous moment with others in the room.
If you see it in a movie theater, it’s foolishly entertaining and prepare for a rollicking car ride home reviewing every implausibility and idiocy.
I’m sure Neeson would rather be onstage doing O’Neill or Shaw or Synge but, like it or not, he’s in the Sylvester Stallone business these days. And the money is gooooooooodddd.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’O
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references.
The Lowdown: A depressed air marshal on a transatlantic flight deals with a killer promising deaths every 20 minutes.